Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, and the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam was over.
The last two American servicemen to die in Vietnam were Marines Charles McMahon, 21, and Darwin Judge, 19 — on April 29, 1975.
Visitors to Washington, D.C., can see the names of the 58,000 plus who died in McNamara’s war, a war that George McNamara, Secretary of Defense, later confessed was a mistake. In 1995, he published his memoir “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” An editorial in The New York Times said that McNamara offered the war’s dead only “a prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
Yes, all of those who died had names, and McMahon’s remains and those of Judge were not returned to the U.S. until the following year when Senator Ted Kennedy exercised his powers of diplomacy to bring them home.
In mid-December of 2012, my college honor students and I interviewed three Vietnam era Veterans for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Close to 40 years have passed since the war ended, and yet it has never really ended for many who served there.
Life goes on in what was Saigon and is now Ho Chi Minh City. Internet sites boast of cheap hotels and “218 Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.”
The list includes a visit to the War Remnants Museum. It was originally named “Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes,” later changed to “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression,” and now has its current moniker after the U.S. ended its embargo on the country and reestablished diplomatic relationships. As I tell my students, “Today’s enemies of the U.S. can be tomorrow’s friends; and today’s friends can be tomorrow’s enemies based upon what is to be gained/lost from a relationship.”
The museum’s mission is to tell the story of the war, with a special focus on American involvement through the eyes of Vietnamese.
Who, then, is to tell the story of the war through the eyes of Americans who fought there? Since the 58,282 dead cannot speak, their surviving brothers and sisters in arms must speak for them. Some carry physical wounds. There were 153,303 wounded in action with injuries so serious they required hospitalization, with approximately the same number wounded who did not require hospitalization.
The emotional wounds carried by the survivors are obvious in the words they speak. My hope is that my students and my involvement in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project will provide a permanent record available to future generations who research the LOC sites on the Internet as they attempt to understand about this failed war— from the perspective of those American soldiers who served.
Student MaKayla Phillips conducted the interviews of Paul Sullenberger and Richard Schmidt. Student Elijah Thompson conducted the interview of Fred Verceles.
Paul Sullenberger, 60, joined the Navy because military service was a family tradition. He has two ancestors who served in the American Revolutionary War and relatives who fought for the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War.
His great, great, great-grandfather Martin Elifritz was in Company B of the Ohio 94th Regiment. He was at the Battle of Stone River and, after that battle, died in 1862 from a war wound he suffered in that battle.
On the Confederate side was Silas Miley in the 33rd Virginia Stonewall Brigade. Miley survived the war. Originally from Fisher’s Hill, Va., he lived into his 80s and every year in the fall rode his bicycle home to Virginia where he wintered and then left in the spring to return to Ohio. On one of these bike trips, he caught pneumonia and died.
Also, Sullenberger had 13 uncles who served in World War II, as did his father.
He says that a trip to the Vietnam Memorial “is sobering.” While there, he saw the children of fathers they had never known doing rubbings on the Wall. Others were leaving flowers and notes. One surviving Veteran brought a bottle of Jack Daniels, cracked it open, took a swig, and laid it below the name of a friend he had lost. He said, “The rest is your’s, buddy.”
Sullenberger says, “The unpopularity of the Vietnam War made the American public view military service as less than honorable.”
Richard Schmidt, 66, a hospital corpsman, was one of those Veterans who served on a military hospital ship in Vietnam. He was spit on when he returned to the states. He says, “They didn’t want to serve, and they didn’t care how they treated those of us who did.”
He knew that some returning soldiers were termed “baby killers.” He explains that since the Viet Cong would send children with grenades to the enemy forces, the soldiers would shoot to save themselves and the members of their platoon. He reasons that the moral crime wasn’t with the individuals who killed the children, but with the ones who gave them the explosive devices and sent them to do the deed.
Schmidt indicates it was very upsetting to be serving in a war zone and knowing that American citizens were meeting with the enemy in North Vietnam: “In World War II, we would have called that treason.”
Schmidt has never had the privilege of seeing the monument in D.C., but he has seen the traveling Wall a number of times. He says, “I broke down the first time. I had a buddy in basic and through several duty stations. I never knew what happened to him. I learned at the traveling Wall that he was killed five days after getting in country.”
A third Vietnam Veteran whose story we heard that day was Fred Verceles, 75. A high school dropout, he joined the Marines at age 17, first as an enlisted man, later as an officer rising to the rank of Captain (A Mustang per Marine terminology). His job in Vietnam was as an Air Defense Controller, responsible for giving directions in combat areas: guiding helicopters to deliver supplies, dropping troops and picking them up, and medivacking the wounded.
Verceles said, “When we read in “The Stars and Stripes” what was going on with protests in the U.S., we couldn’t believe it. The Marines gave me a job to do, and I did it. Better there (war), than here.”
Because of his long tenure — 24 years as an enlisted man and as an officer — he understood when he went to the Wall, he would see the names of those he knew who had fallen. He refused to look at the names. “I don’t ever want to go through the list,” he said.
In response to a question about McNamara, he said, “A lot of us are still hurt. If he knew the war was ‘terribly wrong’ and ‘unwinnable,’ why were we there?”
His comments seem appropriate as a way to end a column focusing on Vietnam Veterans: “It still hurts. It’s hard.”
And we are reminded, again, that grief can endure for decades.